Orn and a number of Haven’s other technicians were crowded around an information device back in the main chamber.
“Any news?” Laquin asked him.
“The picture of what happened is starting to come together,” Orn answered. “We’ve located a journal and a few historical documents on the crystal registry.”
“What’s a crystal registry?” asked Mills.
“It’s how information is stored,” Laquin answered. “The structure of the material allows it to be coded with an incredible amount of data.”
“Ah,” said Mills. “Of course.”
“So, first of all, the timeline is difficult,” continued Orn. “The years on Alm are much longer, as it has a longer orbit around the sun.”
“How can a year be longer?” Mills asked.
“Our planet spins around the sun faster than Alm does,” explained Orn. “So, for example, in the time it takes us to reach, say, twenty years of age, it takes someone on Alm approximately four times as long to reach the same age. So we have to do some math to figure out the timeline we’re dealing with.”
“Oh,” said Mills. “So, does every planet have a different time it takes to orbit the sun?”
“Probably,” answered Orn. “From our studies, all of the planets in the Arum System do, anyways. In another solar system, it may be different.”
“Here, this is what I was looking for,” announced one of the women working alongside Orn at the information device. “But it’s not what I expected.”
“What do you have, Vuna?” asked Orn.
“The spaceship that crashed was not sent directly from Alm,” said Vuna. “Apparently, the planet is besieged by catastrophic meteor strikes that come every thousand years, their time.”
“Every thousand years, exactly?” Orn asked.
“That’s how this reads,” said Vuna. “Apparently, there is a family of asteroids that move through our system that are in a direct impact loop with the planet every thousand years.”
“That must be the Doliar Family,” offered one of the men in the room.
“It could also be the Erta Family,” said another.
“Either are a possibility,” said Vuna. “Apparently, there was an effort to stop one such destructive collision with Alm, during which spaceships were sent to plant explosives on the asteroids. The mission failed, but…”
“What is it?” Laquin implored.
“This is hard to believe,” Vuna said, reading the log on the display, “But apparently the astronauts established a colony on one of the asteroids. When they were unable to complete their work, apparently they didn’t have enough time, the colony went on, to continue in the asteroid family’s trajectory around the galaxy. And when they came near enough to Valor, just recently, two volunteers went out on a ship to try and see if our planet might be habitable. That was the craft from which we recovered this information.”
“So the rest of them are still out there, spinning around the galaxy?” asked Orn.
“Unless their asteroid collides with Alm during its next pass through Alm’s orbit,” answered Vuna.
“I wonder if the people of Alm are doing anything to stop the collision,” said Laquin.
“That would be good for them, but possibly mean death for those on the asteroid,” said Vuna.
“How strange,” said Orn. “It makes me wonder, what other mysteries are spinning around our galaxy?”
“We’ve got confirmation on the amulet,” announced another of the technicians working the information system. “It’s compatible with the mother ship.”
The residents of Haven stopped and turned to one another in nervous anticipation.
“That must mean something big,” Xala said, breaking the silence.
“You’re right, it does,” said Laquin. “The first settlers of Valor came here in a massive spaceship, around which Gnirean was built. It still sits at the core of the city. The amulet we are speaking of could, theoretically, turn the ship on. Which hasn’t been done since the original amulet was destroyed by the third generation of Gnirean’s High Council.”
“Why did they destroy it?” asked Xala.
“To destroy the idea that we came from Alm completely,” answered Laquin.
“Why would they want to do that?” asked Xala.
“Because the people of Gnirean were unhappy with the High Council’s near-total control,” said Laquin. “They spoke of how the people of Alm would return one day to free them. Created a religion out of the idea. And the religion started to gain more traction in the hearts of the people than the elites were comfortable with, so they blocked off and buried the mothership, destroyed the amulet to power it, and burned down the peoples’ temples. Very few in Gnirean today remember this. They don’t need to. They have their automated servants, they pay their taxes and stay obedient because they don’t know their true heritage. The High Council has them convinced they’re subservient by nature. But this amulet we’ve recovered could change everything.”
“Could, if there was any way to take it back in,” Vuna said with a sigh. “Though there are none of here without the mark.”
“Aren’t there?” Orn asked, throwing a raised eyebrow toward where Xala, Anaxis, and Mills were standing.
“We couldn’t ask these strangers to go on such a dangerous mission,” said Vuna. “The chance of success is near zero.”
“What sort of mission are we talking about?” asked Anaxis.
“Never mind,” said Laquin.
“Tell him,” said Orn. “Let him decide.”
“It’s impossible,” said Laquin. “To make it into the city, to locate the buried mothership, to plant the amulet. Who knows if the mothership would even be responsive?”
“I’ll do it,” Anaxis said.
The others in the room stared at the boy.
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” said Laquin.
“I think I understand the situation fairly well,” said Anaxis. “And I’m offering to try.”
“Anaxis…” Mills whispered.
“No,” said Anaxis. “I have already come all this way from Talx. You say that there is no one here that could reenter the city, save for the three of us. I want to try.”
“But why would you sacrifice yourself for those people?” Mills asked. “Who are they to you?”
“They’re human, aren’t they? And it sounds like they are being oppressed. Plus, I don’t want to go back home. They want nothing to do with me. I’ve dreamed my whole life of something greater. And now, this opportunity presents itself. If there’s any way I can help those people in Gnirean who are under the foot of the High Council, I have to at least try.”
Talar and Laquin led Anaxis, Mills, and Xala up through a long, steep stairwell from the main chamber at Haven. It opened up into a vast, darkened space.
“Ready?” Laquin asked the newcomers in the darkness.
“Ready,” Anaxis answered.
“Not if it’s going to be scary,” said Mills.
Laquin threw a switch and the space was flooded with light. It defined a round room capped with a massive dome, occupied almost entirely by a giant mechanism that sat in its center. The mechanism was comprised of tubes of various lengths and widths, all connected to a platform that say on a circular base.
“What is it?” Xala asked.
“Our eye to the sky,” Laquin answered. “It’s a telescope. It’s how we knew of the crash in the desert.”
“What’s a telescope?” asked Mills.
“It is a device that collects electromagnetic radiation,” answered Talar.
“Visible light,” Laquin added. “This one is composed of mirrors that help to collect and focus the light beyond our planet. With it we can study the cosmos.”
“What’s the point?” asked Mills.
“Haven’s entire reason for being is anticipating the return of our ancestors from Alm,” said Talar. “And it seems as if our waiting has finally been answered.”
“This whole thing is for that?” Mills asked.
“Primarily,” answered Laquin. “Though we have been able to study the movement of the stars with it. And to anticipate possible meteors or asteroids that might pose us threats, a lesson learned from our ancestors on Alm.”
“We heard a bit about that,” said Anaxis, “About our ancestors being from another planet. So it’s true?”
“Certainly,” answered Talar. “The people of Alm left many thousands of years ago to explore and colonize new planets, and that’s where the first humans on Valor came from.”
“And they haven’t been back since? Not until now?” asked Xala.
“No,” answered Laquin. “We are hoping to find out why by studying the information we gathered from the crash in the desert.”
“Fascinating,” said Xala. “Can I have a look, in the telescope?”
“Of course,” Talar said. “You all can.”
Xala stepped up to the viewing platform. Laquin manipulated some levers along the wall, and the dome of the room started to open.
“Whoa!” Anaxis cried. “How’s it do that?”
“Very carefully,” Talar answered. “And secretively. We’ll have drones from Gnirean coming by soon on their daily rounds, so we’ll have to be careful to close it back up before they get here.”
“Can’t they recognize it from the outside?” asked Anaxis.
“We’re very well camouflaged,” answered Laquin. “Go ahead, Xala, have your look. Quickly.”
Xala put her face to the viewing apparatus and gasped.
“It’s like I can see into eternity!” she said. “How far am I looking?”
“Many light-years,” answered Laquin. “We’ve not reached an end to its sight, yet.”
“What’s a light-year?” asked Mills.
“That’s how far light can travel in a year,” answered Talar.
“Light travels?” Mills asked.
“It does,” answered Laquin. “So quickly that it’s hard to discern on Valor, but in studying the cosmos, we see light reaching us from very, very far away. In a way, looking at light that has travelled a long enough distance is like looking into the past. What we are seeing is only what has reached us at this point, not what is actually being emitted currently.”
Mills looked overwhelmed for a brief moment, then shook his head.
“That’s pretty crazy,” he said.
“Can I look, Xala?” asked Anaxis.
“Go ahead,” Xala said, stepping back from the viewing mask.
“Here,” Laquin said, manipulating the levers to rotate the telescope into a new position. “Tell me what you think of that.”
Anaxis put his face to the viewing mask and gasped. He saw a stunningly bright circle, reflected in such detail that he could make out spots and whip-like flares dancing around and across its surface.
“What is it?” he asked.
“That’s our sun, Arum,” said Laquin.
“It’s alive!” he said. “The sun is alive!”
“It sure is,” said Talar. “A massive thermonuclear furnace churning in the cold void of space, keeping us warm and giving us light.”
“It’s so beautiful…” Anaxis murmured as he continued to stare.
“We can look again later,” Laquin said, “But the drones will be by soon. It will be best if we stop for now.”
“Alright,” Anaxis said disappointedly.
He stepped down from the viewing platform and Laquin closed the opening in the dome.
“Shall we go see what Orn and the others have been able to find from the information we obtained from the crash?” asked Laquin.
“I’d love to know!” said Xala.
“Me too,” said Anaxis.
“Are we going to go home soon?” asked Mills.
“Soon enough, Mills,” said Laquin. “Just hang in there a little longer.”
There was the muted noise of machinery working, and then a bridge started to lower down from the cave ceiling, suspended on chain link. It hit the rocks on either side of a deep chasm with a loud, echoing clunk, and then the five travelers who had crossed the Stretch started their ways across it.
On the other side, Talar shook the hands of the newcomers and gave hugs to Laquin and Orn.
“Is Cine behind you?” he asked.
“No,” said Laquin. “He didn’t make it.”
The news seemed to hit Talar deeply, but he recovered quickly and nodded acceptance. “So it is. Come this way. We’ve been anxiously awaiting your return.”
Through a short archway that necessitated crawling under, the group entered the largest chamber of the cave yet. There were many lights all around the huge space, blinking or steady, in many different colors. Around some of these lights were crowded groups of people, working or talking. In the center of the space were three airships like the one Cine had crashed, and another such vehicle that sat on wheels. An underground river ran through the cave, crossed over by numerous bridges. There was a large mechanism along the banks of the river that looked to be a sort of holding tank, from which a network of tubes ran in and out. Beside this was a large kitchen area, with several long tables situated all around it. Talar led the newcomers over several of the bridges spanning the river, back and forth, until they reached the seating area.
“Please, sit,” he said. “I’m sure you’re all very hungry and thirsty.”
“We are,” said Orn. “Thank you.”
Talar went to the large tank that dominated the seating area and started to fill a ewer.
“They’ve returned!” said a woman working at one of the stations perched up the cave wall.
She and three others descended down a spiral staircase to where the team was drinking and starting to set into a bowl of food Talar put out for them.
“Where’s Cine?” one of them asked.
“He didn’t make it,” Talar answered.
The man’s knees buckled and he fell down onto a bench. “Didn’t make it?”
“I’m terribly sorry, Yin,” said Orn. “He saved our lives with his piloting, but there were three drones after us and he wasn’t able to escape them all.”
Yin didn’t seem like he was ready to accept Cine’s death.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “You’re sure he’s dead? Perhaps if I were to conduct a survey mission, back to the crash site…”
“There’s no way he’s was alive,” said Laquin. “He was in the cockpit when it smashed into a rock fin. I’m so sorry.”
“Well we can’t leave him out there,” Yin said. “We have to recover his body.”
Another offered, “I will help you, if that is possible. Cine wouldn’t want us to risk our lives or security for him.”
“How am I supposed to go on without him?” Yin asked.
“We are all here for you,” said Orn.
Yin rose from his seat and walked slowly off into a dark recess.
“It is certainly tragic that we have lost one of our greatest,” said Orn. “But it was not in vain. We accomplished our objective. We recovered the amulet from the fallen spacecraft.”
“That is some good news,” said Shan, another of the greeting party. “Great news.”
“And who are these newcomers to Haven?” asked Talar.
“This is Xala, and Anaxis, and Mills,” said Laquin. “They themselves were investigating the crash when we were besieged by Gnirean’s drones. They are from the village of Talx, from the western desert.”
“Welcome to Haven,” Shan said to them.
“Thank you,” said Xala. “I must say, this place is most intriguing.”
“Do you all live underground, all the time?” asked Mills.
“For the most part,” said Talar.
“What do you do down here?” asked Anaxis. “What are all these lights and machines?”
“After you eat,” said Talar, “I’ll show you.”
“Get ready,” said Laquin. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”